Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

LARSSON, STIEG. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-307-45454-6. Pp. 590. $14.95.

I know, I know. I've already broken my own rules. But baby, rules were made to be broken. Also, Larsson's "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is the first of the trilogy, which I think makes it okay to review. Besides, I was planning on reading it someday anyway. And this week I did just that. 

The book is about people who live in Sweden, who drink a lot of coffee, have a lot of personal and professional enemies, and print a lot of documents. It's also a tale of murder, libel, rape, torture, gangsterism, and financial journalism. And wending their way through this mess are two unlikely heroes, Mikael Blomkvisk and Lisbeth Salamander. Naturally, they stalk each other, meet up, team up, have some awkward sex, and solve the mystery. Besides this, they're the original odd couple: Mikael, naive, idealistic, middle-age, and a total DILF; Lisbeth, introverted, goth, mopey broody sulky chick and the most annoying fictional character since Bella Swan. Half the characters she runs into also think she is "retarded" (Stieg's word, not mine). You're supposed to not help but like her, but somehow I managed. Fortunately in Sweden, goth kids are considered mentally unstable, and Lisbeth's hellish relationship with a new guardian is one of the most gruesome subplots in the book. Don't plan on eating anything while reading the scenes that involve Bjurman. I myself learned the hard way.

The murder mystery itself is pretty gripping, and Larsson must have been an avid reader of the genre before his death in 2004, and there are many authors, both English and Swedish, that crop up over the course of the novel. There are times when the characters actually refer to other mystery authors and favored mystery tropes to describe the case in which they themselves are involved: "[T]he list of suspects consists of a finite number of people trapped here. A sort of locked-room mystery on an island format?" In many ways this is a meta-murder mystery, with Henrik Vanger, the man who commissions Blomkvist to solve the mystery, acting as the author of a thriller, while Blomkvist reacts to it the way the reader should. As Larsson humbly puts it, "Reluctantly [Blomkvist] had to admit that the old man's story was intriguing". Which it is, when the Larsson sticks to it.

Stylistically, the novel stumbles, but this could be due to a lazy translation (by Reg Keeland). Unfortunately, I can't say who's to blame. What I do know is that the piece is rife with platitudes and clich├ęs, sometimes more than one per sentence: "I have to choose between two evils, and in this case there are no winners". And then twice on the next page: "I don't intend to hang [her] out to dry"; "I would have hung him out to dry". This kind of repetition shows a lack of imagination when it comes to writing dialogue, but it could also be the translator's inability to properly convert snappy Swedish talk into anything remotely natural-sounding in English.

All in all, I found myself half engrossed, half repelled by Larsson's first installation. I will probably read the other two, just not right now. What makes a man turn goth? I don't know. I think the answer lies somewhere in the next book.

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